Graham Hill speaks in the slow, confident tone of someone who works too hard to be enamored by their own success. He doesn’t say much. But when he does talk, he mentions amazing feats, like his time on the Plastiki - a catamaran made from recycled water bottles which sailed across the Pacific - with such passing simplicity that you might think he was merely recounting an interesting article he’d glanced over, rather than a once in a lifetime adventure he’d undertaken. He is, in short, a very nice guy who does very cool stuff. His newest project, LifeEdited, is no different.
“So the basic concept behind LifeEdited,” he said, “is that we, in the US in particular, have supersized our lives over the last fifty or sixty years. We’ve got about three times the amount of space per person that we had back then, we’ve also got a 22 billion dollar storage industry for all our extra stuff. With that comes a bigger environmental footprint, and higher debt, and happiness levels have pretty much flatlined.”
This is indubitably true. According to the 2013 World Happiness Report published by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, US citizens rank 17th in overall happiness. Not bad, considering there are 146 countries surveyed. But perhaps a bit surprising as we’re outstripped by Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, and a handful of other countries we might typically consider not-quite-as-awesome as ourselves.
“Despite having more space and more stuff, we’re actually not any happier,” Hill said, “So the basic premise behind LifeEdited is that if we’re smart about how we apply design, technology, and maybe a little behavior change, we can create really compelling fulfilling lives that allow us to live within our means both financially and environmentally. In essence, a simpler life is a happier life.”
All of this is manifest in a website and newsletter which shares all sorts of information centered around the ideas of simple, sleek, eco-friendly, life-friendly design. From micro-lofts to moveable walls, LifeEdited is all about living large with less. Well, not just less - less and better.
“I’m not saying don’t have any stuff,” he said “just have less of it, and try to have great stuff that you really love. That’s built well, and repairable, and will still look good in ten years.”
This idea, less but better, is the basis of what makes Hill unique among social entrepreneurs. Many of the men and women we speak to in the Conscious Capitalist article series work with what are dubbed bottom-of-the-pyramid populations. They are, economically, the poorest of the poor. People who live on a dollar or two a day and sometimes less. It is an incredibly important group to address, but it’s not the only group that needs help learning to live better in this world of limited resources. A life of excess and materialism can be a different type of hell, but is hellish nonetheless. Anyway, if all the people of the world lived like some of the wealthiest do, there wouldn’t be nearly enough resources to go around. Clearly what we need is to meet in the middle.
“In the US we’re role models. Whether we like it or not, or whether we deserve to be or not. With an up-and-coming China, and an up-and-coming India, it’d be nice if all those people weren’t shooting for these giant McMansions we’ve kind of championed.”
Bringing his writing into the real world, Hill is working with developers in a handful of cities to create everything from apartments to hotels which reflect the less but better mantra. Demand and interest in micro-housing is rising quickly. Hill’s Ted Talk has gotten 2 million views, and an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times on the subject immediately became the Times’ most emailed article for five days straight. When Mayor Bloomberg announced a Request for Proposals (RFP) known as the adAPT NYC competition, designed to foster the development of the city’s first micro-unit apartment building - it became the most downloaded and responded to RFP in the city’s history.
Hill himself isn’t just some tree-hugger with an idea and a blog (despite also being the founder of treehugger.com). He’s speaking from experience. After joining the ranks of the dot com millionaires in the late nineties his life quickly began accumulating more and more stuff.
“I did what most people do when they make some money,” he said “I started spending a bunch of it.”
Cars, houses, and the stuff to fill them cluttered his life until a stint of long term travel made him realize that he was able to have a fantastic, exciting, highly fulfilling lifestyle and live out of nothing more than two bags. Flash forward to today, and Graham lives in a beautiful 420 square foot Manhattan apartment. That’s not a typo - it’s 420 square feet. But in a city infamous for cramped quarters, he’s changed the rules of the game, using innovative design to accommodate a living room, bedroom, office, kitchen, bathroom, a guest bedroom and enough space to routinely entertain parties up to twelve.
“The acoustics are good, the air is good, the light is good. It’s a very pleasant way to live.”
If you find it as impossible to believe as I did the first time I heard about it, go have a look at his website. One look at the information there, and you might very well see that your life’s got a little extra room for less.
CONNECT WITH LifeEdited here
CONSCIOUS CAPITALISTS is an ongoing series of profiles of for-profit social entrepreneurs on CATALYST.
Ethan is a Contributing Writer for MISSION.tv, a traveler and an entrepreneur. In addition to writing for CATALYST, and SocialFinance.CA he blogs about all sorts of things over at An American Afoot. His recent work focuses on people who are using business to change the world for the better. Always interested in new and fascinating stories, he can be reached via twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org